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By Gina Channell Wilcox

The Brown Act is not black and white

Uploaded: Dec 19, 2013

Two days after I moved to California from Illinois, I received a phone call from someone accusing a local city council of Brown Act violations. Feigning knowledge, I took down the information while simultaneously Googling "Brown Act."

The Brown Act is California open meeting law, authored by and named for Ralph M. Brown, a California Assemblymember. Illinois, of course, has open meetings laws, but the authors must have lacked creativity because it is named "Open Meetings Act."

The Brown Act passed in 1953 and guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

Well, the public can attend and participate in most meetings, but there are exceptions. Closed meetings, or closed session, can be held for pending litigation, labor negotiations, property negotiations, and a few other reason, but often closed sessions are held to discuss personnel issues. Only discussions of appointments, employment, performance evaluations, discipline, complaints about or dismissal of a specific employee or potential employee are reasons for a closed session.

The Pleasanton school board recently held a special closed session meeting to discuss the dismissal of an administrator. After eight hours, the board members took a vote.

I fielded a question from a reader about the legality of taking a vote in closed session; the reader claimed it was a violation of the Brown Act. The Brown Act does in fact state that votes must be done publicly.

Again, though, there are exceptions. Action can be taken in closed session, and the law mandates "all actions taken and all votes in closed session must be publicly reported orally or in writing within 24 hours and copies of any contracts or settlements approved must be made available promptly." The school board did make a statement that included the roll call vote when the closed session ended at 3:15 a.m.

The reader's question, though, is a good indication of how knowledgeable residents are with open meetings and public records laws, which is commendable.

The California First Amendment Coalition headquartered in my old stomping grounds of San Rafael, has a lot of good information on the Brown Act and the Public Records Act. Ask questions, by informed and remember that nothing is ever black and white.